Traffic enforcement should be removed from police responsibilities and instead be the responsibility of a civilian, independent “Traffic Agency,” argues a University of Arkansas law professor.
In a forthcoming paper in the Stanford Law Review, Jordan Blair Woods notes that some of the fatal interactions between police and civilians in recent years have arisen during traffic stops.
“Traffic stops are the most frequent interaction between police and civilians today and are a persistent source of racial and economic injustice,” Woods wrote in his summary of the article, scheduled for publication in 2021.
Rethinking the police role in traffic control should be part of efforts to reallocate public safety resources—efforts that have often been lumped with calls for “defunding” police, noted Woods, who serves as Faculty Director of the Richard B. Atkinson LGBTQ Law and Policy Program at the University of Arkansas Law School.
“Scholars and commentators argue that society has grown to place too much responsibility on the police, and vests too much power in officers to perform social functions,” he wrote.
“In the growing ‘defund the police’ movement, advocates have emphasized that successful police reform not only entails scaling down police budgets, but also reevaluating what exactly police do.”
Traffic stops are no exception; in fact, they’re what police officers do most, said Woods.
Traffic stops have historically been a problem because they give officers wide discretion in their interaction with civilians, and are often subject to racial bias.
Police officers can pull a person over for concrete reasons like speeding or failure to signal; but a traffic stop could also be triggered by ‘non-moving’ violations, which allow officers wide leeway in interpretation.
“The breadth, and at times imprecision, of traffic laws creates a low bar for officers to justify pulling over any driver,” said Woods. “This broad discretion fuels the under-enforcement of traffic laws that advantages some drivers, and the selective and over-enforcement of traffic laws that disadvantages others.”
According to Woods, Black drivers were 1.4 times more likely to be stopped than white drivers. Hispanic drivers also had a 34 percent higher chance of being given a traffic ticket than white drivers; while Black drivers had a 19 percent higher chance.
Moreover, Black drivers were arrested 1.9 times more and Hispanic drivers two times more than the rate at which white drivers were arrested.
Current state and federal laws don’t help the imprecision of the rules regarding traffic stops.
Woods cited the 1996 Whren v United States decision by the Supreme Court which held that officers can lawfully pull over a car if they have reasonable doubt or suspicion of unlawful behavior—so-called “pretextual stops”—even if no traffic laws were ostensibly violated.
Woods argued that the country can change the narrative on traffic stops by removing them from police responsibility.
“Police do not have an inherent role in traffic enforcement,” said Woods. “Rather, police assumed this role when significant changes in our driving system caused motor vehicles to pose a more probable and widespread public safety threat.”
Woods’ solution lies in the implementation of independent ‘Traffic Agencies’, staffed by public employees assigned to handle traffic stops alone. The traffic “agents” would only call on police when there is a serious threat of harm or criminal behavior.
That would limit police to involvement in traffic patrol in the case of a serious violation, like an outstanding warrant or credible indication of involvement in a violent crime like a hit and run.
Unlike regular police officers, traffic monitors “would not be vested with typical police powers to search or arrest,” and also wouldn’t be armed, wrote Woods.
Instead, traffic monitors’ authority would only be centered around traffic violations.
According to Woods this would eliminate police officers’ ability to conduct pretextual stops, or a minor violation being used as a way to investigate the person’s car and belongings for more serious offenses.
These pretextual stops “enable police mistreatment and abuse, and cause traffic stops to be humiliating and frightening experiences for people of color,” said Woods.
Woods claimed that this would also prevent escalation of traffic stops into violence.
“Black men face a one in 1,000 chance of being killed by a police officer over their life course and are 2.5 times more likely than white men to be killed by a police officer,” said Woods.
Because traffic agencies would only be allowed to pull someone over if they made a clear traffic violation and don’t have the power to search their vehicle or have the driver step out of the vehicle, it could prevent situations where police might otherwise prematurely resort to using force.
“Traffic stops typically occur in low-visibility settings where officers have vast discretion to invoke their authority—a combination that too often gives effect to officers’ conscious and unconscious biases along the lines of race and class,” said Woods.
“Perhaps if traffic stops were just about traffic, and not criminal investigations, then these invocations of police authority would no longer be necessary to effectuate the purpose of the stop.”
Woods argued that the police role in traffic enforcement could also be reduced if states decriminalized other traffic violations like driver’s license violations or DUI’s.
“States and localities could trim traffic codes to only include traffic violations that put motorists or pedestrians at risk of imminent danger,” he wrote.
Woods claimed that under this system, less traffic stops wouldn’t be a negative reflection on job performance, as often seen through the quota system that’s still legal in some states.
“In a world of traffic without the police, state or local laws prohibiting traffic agencies from instituting traffic ticket quotas are a good first step,” said Woods.
Another reform Woods proposed was decreasing the financial incentives that often fuel traffic enforcement.
The average cost of a speeding ticket is $150, and can even amount to $2,000 in some states, Woods said.
“This perpetuates the harmful cycle, because many financially and economically vulnerable people need a driver’s license to get to work, and without work, they cannot afford to pay fines, fees,” said Woods.
According to Woods, the biggest advantage of implementing an independent traffic agency is that it has the potential for reducing racial bias in policing.
“Put simply, there will be fewer opportunities for officers to use traffic law enforcement as a pretext to stop vehicles and subsequently question, search, cite, arrest, or apply force during traffic stops,” said Woods.
“In our current driving regime, where traffic enforcement and policing are intertwined, people of color and economically marginalized communities bear the brunt of these injustices.”
Woods suggested that civilian traffic agencies could help improve the public perception of police.
Traffic stops are “quintessential” to how people view the police, Woods wrote.
Thus, taking the burden of traffic stops off police shoulders could help them put more time and effort into other parts of their job, he added.
“Law enforcement advocates have argued that the breadth of the police function today places great mental and physical stress on officers, which undermines their ability to make split-second decisions on the job,” said Woods.
“If traffic safety is the true goal, then states and localities might reap comparable or even better traffic safety benefits through non-police alternatives to traffic enforcement,” said Woods.
Others could argue that it’s not safe enough or too expensive, and that money going into paying traffic agencies and police officers could be decreased by just paying police officers to do the jobs.
Woods countered that “if public safety, and not savings, is the intended goal” it is possible for the U.S. to take resources from the police and spend them effectively on traffic agencies.
“Reframing traffic enforcement as a transportation safety and not a policing problem also opens space to explore creative ways that transportation law and policy could assist in removing the police from traffic enforcement,” he wrote.
Emily Riley is a TCR justice reporting intern.